When President Biden agreed to a debt limit deal with House Republicans in June, he greenlit many of their changes to the federal approval process for energy projects, typically referred to as permitting reform. Both parties came away with a win. Job well done, right? 

Not quite, especially when it comes to the growth of clean energy in this country. Permitting reform isn’t just a Republican priority. Democrats passed significant new financing for the energy transition earlier in Biden’s presidency, but without further permitting reform that addresses their key issues, it won’t achieve nearly enough. And Republicans who may have taken a victory lap on the debt-limit deal have permitting goals to accomplish, too. A better deal could still be had. 

The problem the nation faces with permitting is that we are starting to reach the upper limits of how much clean energy can be deployed under the current policy structure, as well as how quickly. We can build clean energy, but can we build it where it is needed? The easiest places already have renewable energy now, and further displacing fossil fuels requires transmission infrastructure to support new clean energy—and get it to customers.

This is especially important when one considers that there is more clean energy capacity trying to connect to the grid right now than there is total electricity generating capacity in the U.S. It takes longer than ever for new clean energy resources to get built and connected to the grid, and 80% of the potential climate benefits from the Inflation Reduction Act are locked behind transmission growth. On top of that, clean energy projects are more likely to require higher levels of environmental review, and they often take longer to review. 

The good news, though, is that there are a lot of policy options that can improve federal permitting and result in net wins for the environment.

New high-voltage power lines are the key to connecting the cheapest new renewable energy resources to the areas that need the most electricity, but because America’s grids are so old, disjointed, and unprepared for expansion, we’re missing out on cheap power and clean energy benefits. The debt ceiling reforms affect only one small piece of the problem for transmission projects through new time limits on environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, while other problems remain unaddressed. 

One opportunity is to reform the decision-making process for siting and permitting interstate power lines. The nation’s robust gas pipeline infrastructure has benefited from a simpler federal approval process that electric power lines do not enjoy. Expanding these permitting methods to cover interstate power lines would ease project approvals and doesn’t require unprecedented change. Other problems also need to be addressed, such as who pays for new lines across a given territory and whether regional electric power grid operators should create systems to sell power to neighboring grids to bolster reliability. These represent good opportunities for bipartisan compromise.

On top of changes to transmission, there are many ways to reform NEPA that will boost clean energy investment. Right now, most projects covered by the law are studied individually, in project-level reviews. By contrast, an approach that studies whole areas or sets of projects at once–called programmatic review–would be simpler, more effective, and a better use of administrative resources. Any individual projects in need of further study can cite prior reviews for background and focus on new or site-specific problems. For clean energy deployments that involve many similar, repetitive projects with known environmental benefits and potential impacts, like utility-scale solar-panel and wind-turbine installations, broader use of programmatic reviews can help shift from lengthy case-by-case studies to a more effective focus on the most pressing issues while approving simply beneficial projects much more rapidly. 

Republicans should agree to these pro-renewable changes because they also have a remaining permitting issue: the litigation process for permits. Right now, Republicans argue, agencies preparing permit documents must preemptively cover an exhaustive list of even the most minor potential impacts to contend with lawsuits that accuse them of ignoring problems. Lawsuits can drag on for years, tying up investments and creating uncertainty. The range of reforms to fix the real issues that stem from widespread veto power include reasonable statutes of limitation like those already in use for transportation projects, requiring participation in the public comment process to show good faith and ensure that agencies are notified of problems earlier in the process, and sending all lawsuits directly to an appellate court with the expertise to adjudicate disputes more quickly. 

A better permitting reform deal should be a priority for Democrats and Republicans whose energy policies remain unfinished after the debt deal. None of the major proposed policies from either side are too offensive to the other, creating a rare opportunity for bipartisanship. But the bigger issue is that if clean energy really is a priority, then policy makers need to get serious on permitting reform. Otherwise, all of the climate rhetoric in D.C. will just be hot air.